No one connected with New Mexico’s William H. Tucker Intercollegiate tournament is quite sure when — or even if — a local golfer had ever won the tournament in its previous 65 years of play.
Well, that debate is now settled for good as St. Pius alumnus Aidan Thomas, who plays for New Mexico State, held on in Saturday’s final round for a one-stroke victory over UNM’s Sam Choi, Keanu Akina of BYU and Jiri Zuska of Louisville. BYU easily took the team title with a 23-under 841, 19 strokes ahead of the runnerup Lobos at UNM Championship Course.
It’s a win Thomas has been dreaming about for some time.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” he said. “It means so much since I’m from here. I got my hometown fans cheering me on. It’s emotional. But to be able to win out here just shows everyone that I could have, I don’t know, that the Lobos missed out on a great opportunity by not getting me. But then again. I am supporting New Mexico golf by going to New Mexico State and I’m happy to represent them, and getting the win for them means a lot.”
After two solid opening rounds of 67 and 66 to enter Saturday’s finale with an 11-under 133, Thomas struggled to a 2-over 74 to finish at 9-under 207.
But Saturday, he made the shots when they counted. “It was a tough day out there,” Thomas said.
Nothing summed up his day more than the 544-yard, par-5 18th, his 16th hole of the round. He left his tee shot way wide right in the ugly scruff and couldn’t find his ball until a spectator spotted it elevated in some weeds.
He recovered with a tremendous out to the middle of the fairway, then knocked a 4-iron onto the green and two-putted to save par.
“Once I hit that tee shot on 18, I was really mad at myself, because I focus on trying not to miss it right like I did,” Thomas said. “The only thing that helped me on 18 was finding my ball and I was able to chip out. I hit a great 4-iron on my next shot. I just said to myself to give myself a chance to make par because we have Hole 1 ahead.”
At that point, he was a stroke behind Zuska, but facing another 544-yard, par-5, Thomas laced his tee shot down the middle en route to an easy birdie while Zuska bogeyed the hole he was on.
All of sudden, Thomas just needed a par on the 454-yard, par-4 No. 2 to claim his first outright individual college victory. On the green in two, he lagged his first putt to within two feet, then rattled the winner home.
“I was just focused on hitting the middle of the cup,” he said with a wide smile. “That’s it.”
It’s quite a difference from when he played the Tucker as freshman in 2019.
“I shot 83-72-78,” Thomas said. “A totally different result.”
Choi shot an even-par final round, and on two of his final three holes, the ball rolled excruciatingly close to the cup before sliding by.
“It was a good battle first of all,” he said. “I’m happy about what I did (Saturday). I hung in there and I finished with birdie, par, birdie. It was good. It sucks to come one shot short, but that’s golf and I’m ready for the next tournament.”
Choi wasn’t really happy with the way he’s been playing of late, so it was as relief to put together three solid rounds.
“I was hitting it pretty bad coming into the tournament but I told myself this is your home course, you play so many rounds here. All you have to do is have fun out there and be patient,” he said.
UNM coach Glen Millican said it was good to see Choi playing well: “It was a really good tournament for Sam. After the tournament, if you can talk about a couple of putts keeping you from winning, then you played good enough to win. Anybody who wins any golf tournament it’s going to come down to a putt here or there.”
Millican said he is happy for Thomas taking the medalist honors.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve known Aiden for a long time. He’s a great player, a great person. Very nice family and from Albuquerque and was a very good junior golfer, and we think he’s done a very good job in college.”
As for finishing, Millican has some mixed feelings.
“I don’t think we can be satisfied with how we played, but I also don’t think we can beat ourselves up over the way we played,” he said. “We still beat a lot of good teams. It feels a little different when you did beat a lot of good teams but we got smoked by BYU. It feels a little disappointing, getting beat pretty soundly on your home course.”